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Archive for Sunday, July 20, 2008

Surprisingly, Harrington in the hunt

Padraig Harrington gestures during the third round of the British Open. Harrington, the defending champion, was two strokes behind leader Greg Norman after Saturday's third round at the Royal Birkdale Golf Course in Southport, England.

Padraig Harrington gestures during the third round of the British Open. Harrington, the defending champion, was two strokes behind leader Greg Norman after Saturday's third round at the Royal Birkdale Golf Course in Southport, England.

July 20, 2008

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— Padraig Harrington might have come up with a new practice routine for the majors.

1. Play the front nine. Once should be enough.

2. Just walk the course after that, chatting leisurely with the guy who's getting some real work in.

3. Stop off at the greens for a little chipping and putting.

A bit unorthodox? Sure. But Harrington has no complaints about the way it worked for him at this British Open.

"At least I didn't tire myself out," he said with that nasal-tinged brogue of his.

Today, Harrington will be playing in the final group of a tournament he didn't even know he'd be healthy enough to play just a few days ago. He'll have to overcome a two-shot deficit to Greg Norman to take home the claret jug for another year, but just consider where this plucky Irishman was on the eve of the first round.

Last weekend, Harrington hurt his right wrist doing an exercise that was supposed to strengthen it. He took Monday off, then played nine holes Tuesday before it started bothering him. He came out Wednesday intent on getting in a round, but that lasted just three swings.

The rest of the time, he just walked along with Woody Austin, studying the course but mostly just laughing and sharing stories in between Austin's shots. Harrington's caddie lugged a putter and a handful of wedges, the only clubs his boss felt comfortable swinging.

Less than 24 hours before his tee time, Harrington walked down the 18th fairway with three reporters in tow, admitting he wasn't sure if he was healthy enough to play. Certainly, if this was just about any other event, he would have packed it in right there.

But this is the Open, and he's the defending champion.

So, the next morning, Harrington reported to the first tee at his appointed time, gritted his teeth and headed out to shoot a most respectable 74 in miserable conditions.

The wrist was sore, but it held up.

Now, he's not even thinking about it.

"The wrist seems to be fine. No problems with it," Harrington said Saturday after a 2-over 72 in fierce winds left him deadlocked with K.J. Choi, only Norman above them on the scoreboard. "I will continue to have treatment and continue to look after it, but I'm confident in it at this stage."

Harrington was certainly in his element, playing a links course in winds that gusted to nearly 50 mph. If it wants to howl like that today, well, he won't be complaining.

"I'd look forward to that challenge," he said. "It would probably give me my best chance of winning."

He's certainly got the mental toughness to win again. Just remember how Harrington pulled himself together a year ago, just when it appeared he had thrown away his first major title by knocking not one, but two balls into the Barry Burn on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie.

A nifty pitch and putt gave Harrington a double-bogey. A 10-foot miss by Sergio Garcia gave the Irishman another chance. He took advantage of it in the playoff.

Now, trying to become the first European in more than a century to repeat as Open champion, Harrington approached the third round with that same sort of single-mindedness, so necessary when you're playing in such difficult conditions. He didn't worry about anyone else. He didn't fret about the weather. All he did was think about his next shot.

"I never saw a leaderboard," he said. "I kept my head down and didn't look at it once. I had no idea how the leaders were doing."

Harrington bogeyed the second hole, missing a 10-foot putt, but got a much-needed break at No. 5, holing out a chip from 45 yards. At the seventh, he stuck a 5-iron to 6 feet and rolled in the putt for another birdie. A three-putt bogey at the next hole sent him around the turn even for the round.

No complaints there.

But peril lurked everywhere, and it caught up with Harrington on the back side. He three-putted again from 30 feet to bogey the 11th. He powered his tee shot over the green at the par-3 12th, forcing him to chip off the side of a steep mound. The ball barely reached the green, and he three-putted again for a double-whammy.

But Harrington, biting his lower lip as he always does, simply plodded on.

Now, it's on to the final group of the final round, a pairing with Norman that's one for the ages.

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